Finally, Michigan State-Boise State kickoff is within 24 hours! The Big Ten’s hottest team the past four years against the best “mid-major” football program in the country will battle in front of a national television audience. It’s a matchup that has been talked about at nausea for months but, nevertheless, there are still some things to discuss.
WELCOME TO THE NEW ERA: You’ve heard the saying that college football’s unpredictability begins and ends with the fact it is played by kids. So much is expected from these 18 to 22 year olds, more than anyone of us can even imagine. Seriously, can you comprehends people seemingly living to see you succeed on a football field and, if on a given Saturday you have an off day, you’ve let hundreds of thousands of people down? It’s unimaginable. That’s college football today. And while both Boise State and Michigan State have had nice runs in recent years, both sides have so many question marks that actually trying to forecast what is going to happen is like throwing darts.
Start with Boise State. In Head Coach Chris Peterson’s six-year tenure the Broncos are a combined 73-6. The past four seasons the Broncos are a likely-never-to-be-duplicated 50-3. The catalyst of those teams, Kellen Moore, is now in the NFL (either as the Lions third-string quarterback or as a member of some team’s practice squad). Moore wasn’t the reason Boise won more than 94 percent of its games from 2008-2011, but he’s a big part of the reason. He doesn’t have a great arm – definitely not an NFL arm – but he’s a smart football player. His decision making was truly what elevated him to greatness at the college level. Heck, if not for a few botched last-second field goals he could have been an insane 52-1 as a college quarterback.
Also missing are Doug Martin, the diminutive running back who rushed for 1,299 yards and totaled 18 touchdowns in 2011 and Moore’s No. 1 WR Tyler Shoemaker (994 yards, 16 touchdowns). (It should be noted that Martin was also the team’s main kick returner, averaging 33.8 yards per return including a 100-yard touchdown). That’s just the offense. Of Boise State’s top 10 tacklers from last year only linebacker JC Percy (48 tackles, one tackle for loss and one interception) returns.
Michigan State’s offense will look completely different as well. As I wrote in yesterday’s MSU Big Ten Preview, the Spartans literally sent their entire package of skill position players to the NFL. QB Kirk Cousins, RB Edwin Baker, WR Keshawn Martin and WR B.J. Cunningham were all drafted while WR Keith Nichol and TE Brian Linthicum graduated. If you’re counting on your laptop, iPhone, iPad or Droid, that’s 3316 passing yards, 804 rushing yards, 2,859 receiving yards, and 32 touchdowns (52 if you double-dip by counting passing/receiving TDs for both Cousins and the wide receiver).
The difference is that the Spartans seemingly were prepared for this type of departure and have the depth (read: guys with some experience and talent to fill the voids). New quarterback Andrew Maxwell was a four-star recruit out of high school. That’s something most people tend to forget when you redshirt one year and sit for another two years behind a guy who ends up becoming Michigan State’s winningest quarterback. Maxwell’s arm has been described as being better than Cousins’ so fans expecting a major drop off (likely Michigan fans or any other team hoping the Spartans face plant) are likely to be disappointed.
What can’t be ignored is the gaping hole at wide receiver. The leading receiver back – excluding Le’Veon Bell, whose 35 catches and 267 receiving yards would make him the No. 1 WR stat wise – is Dion Sims. At 12 catches for 99 yards and three touchdowns a fan base can’t become that giddy, especially because he’s a tight end. Bennie Fowler is the only player on the depth chart to actually start a game at wide receiver for the Spartans. Adding Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett (24 catches, 242 yards, two touchdowns for the Vols as a true freshman last season) will be a big boost, but one of the key guys at wideout this year is going to be Tony Lippett, a guy who played defensive back for much of 2011.
ANOTHER BIG GAME FOR BOTH TEAMS: Regardless of where you fall on the Boise State fan-o-meter (love ‘em, hate ‘em, could care less about ‘em), you have to respect the Broncos. Yes, the Broncos play in an inferior conference (moving from the Western Athletic Conference to the Mountain West helps) but Petersen has never shied away from playing tough teams. Since 2006, Peterson’s first season, Boise State is 8-1 against BCS schools. The last three years Boise State put the marquee game at the beginning of the schedule. Each year Boise State was favored but by a tight margin. And each year, while some people expected the Broncos to fold in the national spotlight, the Broncos delivered a win. In 2009, Boise State entered as a 3-point home favorite against Oregon and won, 19-8. In 2010 it was a neutral-site game against Virginia Tech and the Broncos covered the one-point spread with a 33-30 win. Last season the Broncos, favored by three points, dominated one of the SEC’s darlings in Georgia, 35-21. To find where all this momentum really started, go back to 2008 when Boise State traveled to Eugene, Oregon to face the Ducks. As a 10-point underdog the Broncos won, 37-32. That win catapulted the Broncos from unranked to No. 17 the following week. Since that victory the Broncos have never been unranked, peaking as high as No. 2 and, for the most part, finding themselves in the lower half of the Top 10.
Michigan State’s big-game trophy case isn’t quite as filled as Boise’s these days, but the Spartans have turned yearly Big Ten showdowns with Wisconsin into must-see TV. The same can be said for games against Notre Dame. And, with the team’s success under Mark Dantonio the team has squared off against some marquee teams in bowl games (2007’s Champs Sports Bowl was against the Matt Ryan-led Boston College Eagles; 2008’s Capital One Bowl was against the Matthew Stafford-led Georgia Bulldogs; 2010’s Capital One Bowl was against the “worst” Alabama team in the past three years, a squad bookended by national championships; Last year was another clash with Georgia, this one a 33-30 victory in triple overtime, MSU’s first bowl victory since 2001).
MAGIC IN THE AIR TONIGHT: Night games, believe it or not, are a fairly new fad in college football. This will be just the 12thnight game all time at Spartan Stadium with the Spartans holding a 7-4 record in those contests. Of course, you probably don’t remember any other night games besides the last two: Michigan State’s Cousins-to-Nichol Hail Mary (“Rocket”) to beat Wisconsin last season and the fake field goal in overtime (“Little Giants”) to beat Notre Dame in 2010. Needless to say there is definitely some nighttime magic in East Lansing.
FINAL ANALYSIS: Both teams will be ironing out some kinks, but the rawness of Boise State’s defense is going to be a major problem. Even if Maxwell has trouble throwing the ball – he shouldn’t with taller receivers against Boise State’s smaller secondary – MSU’s experienced offensive line should dominate the line of scrimmage allowing Bell, Larry Caper, and Nick Hill to run wild. I would expect the Spartans to control the ball and game’s tempo from the opening kickoff. I wouldn’t expect any magic from the Spartans this time around because it likely won’t be needed. Expect one of those games that has its thrilling moments but won’t live up to its hype. Michigan State wins a ho-hum contest, 24-12.
In the not too distant future “SOS” referred to the Jeckyl and Hyde team in East Lansing known for fast starts, highly entertaining games with Northwestern and a late-season swoon highlighted with brutal losses en route to a 5-7 just-short-of-a-bowl-trip season. Since Mark Dantonio’s arrival in 2007 the vibe and results are different. The Spartans are coming off back-to-back 11-win seasons – the only time that’s happened in program history – and have higher expectations this year. Not since the late 1980s has so much been expected out of the Spartans. Excitement is at a fever pitch in East Lansing. One question remains: Can Michigan State live up to the hype? Here are the props to track for the Spartans which, more than likely, will play a major role in the Spartans playing in a BCS Bowl or sputtering to a less exotic winter destination.
Michigan State wins: Over/Under 8.5
This is one of those numbers that, without analyzing it, seems like an error. The Spartans are, of course, ranked No. 13 in both the Associated Press Poll and USA Today Coaches Poll which points to more than an 8-4 season. Therefore, it would seem natural to play the over and expect to fill the piggy bank in January. As Lee Corso loves to say, Not so fast, my friend. This isn’t to say Michigan State won’t win nine or more games, just that it isn’t a shoe-in like you might think.
Gone are the following skill players from last year’s team: QB Kirk Cousins (4th round draft pick – Washington), RB Edwin Baker (7thround draft pick – San Diego), WR B.J. Cunningham (6th round draft pick – Miami), WR Keshawn Martin (4th round draft pick – Houston), WR Keith Nichol and TE Garrett Celek. Those are a lot of weapons and experience that can’t be replaced by simply plugging in last year’s backups.
What people do forget is new quarterback Andrew Maxwell was a 4-star recruit in 2009 and the 9th-ranked high school quarterback that season. Those same people also forget that while Baker came into last season as the lead back (as well as touting his goal of rushing for 2,000 yards), Le’Veon Bell quickly replaced him as the more reliable and feature back. That duo doesn’t make up for what seems like the loss of the entire first-team offense, but it’ll help.
The defense, even with the loss of DT Jerel Worthy, is expected to be filthy. And, as the motto goes, offenses win games but defenses win championships. That is why, even with so many question marks on the offensive side of the ball, the expectations of another Big Ten Championship Game berth are still in the air.
The schedule, due to the Big Ten’s top-to-bottom quality, is anything but a cakewalk. The primetime, Friday night opener against Boise State is the toughest opener for the Spartans since Nebraska came to Spartan Stadium in 1995. (That game, if you’re curious, was a 50-10 Cornhusker victory). Even Week 2 against Central Michigan will be tougher than normal because Michigan State is traveling to Mount Pleasant to face the Chippewas. While MSU should win it wasn’t that long ago that Central Michigan beat MSU in East Lansing. A night game in Week 3 against Notre Dame should be another classic Spartan-Irish battle. That’s three weeks and three could-go-either-way nonconference games for the Spartans.
The Big Ten slate has some soft spots (an early October game at Indiana and the conference finale at Minnesota) but everything else has a toss-up feel. The Spartans host Ohio State in the Big Ten opener on Sept. 29 as well as Iowa on Oct. 13 (the Indiana game is sandwiched in between). From there things get dicey and this is where the Big Ten Legends Division crown will be decided. October finishes with back-to-back road contests against Michigan and Wisconsin. November opens with a visit from Nebraska – the team that handed MSU its only regular season conference loss in 2011. After the bye the Spartans host Northwestern, a team known for putting on an entertaining show against the Spartans.
Rather than play best-case or worst-case scenario with the preseason schedule, let’s look at the most realistic case: The Spartans beat Central Michigan and Eastern Michigan while splitting with Boise State and Notre Dame. That 3-1 mark would mean the Spartans would need to finish with 6 or more Big Ten wins to hit the over on 8.5 wins.
History has shown the Spartans are likely to lose at Wisconsin. With games against the Urban Meyer-led Buckeyes, a trip to Michigan and a visit from Nebraska (this isn’t mentioning the Iowa Hawkeyes who always seem to overachieve when nothing is expected out of the club), it’s feasible the Spartans could be in big trouble. Then again, these same things were said last preseason when the Spartans had a four-game stretch of Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin and at Nebraska. Somehow the Spartans went 3-1 in that stretch en route to the Legends Division title.
If the Spartans can hold serve at home this year – which would likely bolster the nonconference mark to 4-0 barring some big upset at Central Michigan – it would mean MSU would only have to win one conference road game – likely at Indiana or at Minnesota – to hit the over. The problem is this year’s home slate is the most difficult one in recent memory. No one should be shocked if Michigan State stumbles to a 7-5 record with a few close loses. Then again, the same can be said if the Spartans finish with just two regular season losses and are playing for the conference crown in Indianapolis once again.
The ultimate swing game is the game it should be: Oct. 20 at Michigan. Four-straight wins over “Big Brother” has the rivalry at an all-time high and expectations are arguably higher in Ann Arbor this season than in East Lansing. The winner of the intrastate rivalry has the inside track on a Big Ten title game berth and, for the Spartans, it could very well be the difference between eight or nine victories.
Le’Veon Bell All-Purpose Yards: Over/Under 1,499.5 yards, 14.5 touchdowns.
In last year’s share-time role Bell ran for 948 yards and 13 touchdowns. He also added 267 receiving yards. Those 1,215 yards were a big reason the Spartans were likely a fourth-down stop against Wisconsin from playing in the Rose Bowl. Bell was dependable, rarely fumbling and seemingly always falling forward. He did all this behind an offensive line that took at least a third of the season to find any sort of consistency.
While Larry Caper will be more of the receiving back on third downs it doesn’t mean Bell will leave the field. Michigan State has used two running back sets frequently the last few years with great success. However, Caper’s quickness and hands will mean Bell’s best chance to hit the 1,500 number is to do his best Montee Ball impersonation and continue running between the tackles.
The gauntlet of big defenses (Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin, Nebraska) will make running tough but that’s why Bell’s success is so crucial. Bell is going to get the ball near the goal line and scoring seven points instead of three will make or break MSU’s season. If any offense will be capable of wearing down opposing defensive lines and winning with the “ground and pound” philosophy it’ll be the Spartans. Bell undoubtedly will be the main horse.
Combined Sacks and Tackles For Loss for William Gholston and Marcus Rush: Over/Under 9.5, 19.5
These are the numbers (with an added 0.5) the duo recorded in 2011. The world knows about Gholston and his mean streak – Denard Robinson helmet twist anyone? – but it should realize Rush is just as valuable as the other bookend edge rusher. With Worthy clogging up the middle Rush and Gholston were let loose to chase down opposing quarterbacks. It’ll be interesting to see if Tyler Hoover and Anthony Rashad White, both seniors, can be enough of a combined force in the middle to let Gholston and Rush do what they do best.
Here’s a prediction: While Gholston had more tackles (70 to 58), sacks (5 to 4) and tackles for loss (11 to 8) last year expect Rush to have the better numbers in 2012. This isn’t to say Gholston will take a step backward. It’s quite the opposite really. So much attention will be paid to Gholston (read opposing running backs staying in on that side of the backfield to protect the quarterback) that Rush will have fewer obstacles to hurdle. This is in addition to a tight end likely to be flanked on Gholston’s side of the field as well.
The Spartans have a solid secondary, but it, like all secondaries, looks much better when the front seven forces quick quarterback decisions. If Michigan State has BCS aspirations (trust me, the Spartans do) then Gholston and Rush will have to make big plays every Saturday.
Defensive Interceptions, Over/Under 17.5
If the Spartans top this number they’ll reach last year’s total of 18. Only Trenton Robinson’s four interceptions are missing from the roster. Isaiah Lewis (4), Johnny Adams (3), and Darqueze Dennard (3) are the secondary’s big guns while Kurtis Drummond (2) also has good hands for a safety. Those four make up the team’s starting secondary and had two thirds of MSU’s 2011 picks. Denzel Drose, who had a pick last season, is moving to the offensive side of the ball to play tight end. The only other interception went to starting MLB Max Bullough.
What should you take from the plethora of numbers thrown at you? The Spartan Dawgs – as the defensive unit has branded itself – is a group of ball hawks. Much of MSU’s defensive success came last year because when opposing teams realized running against MSU’s front seven was like running into a brick wall it decided to throw – and the secondary was ready. Throw in four-star safety Demetrious Cox, who will have a great chance to start and is the crown jewel of this recruiting class, and opposing quarterbacks should be fearful. Whether the Spartans can match last year’s interception total is uncertain, but it would be foolish to discard the possibility.
Number of Successful Game-Winning or Game-Saving Trick Plays, Over/Under 0.5
It all started with “Little Giants,” Michigan State’s fake field goal that resulted in a 34-31 overtime win against Notre Dame in 2010. Last year it was “Rocket,” the special Hail Mary play from Cousins to Nichol that beat Wisconsin in the pre-Big Ten Championship meeting. Mark Dantonio is no stranger to trick plays, but don’t confuse that for him being insanely aggressive. He’s never gone for it on 4th-and-2 from his own 28 yard line a la Bill Belichick against Peyton Manning’s Colts. Still, Dantonio seemingly knows when to push the SURPRISE! Button. With the conference’s number of heavyweights growing by the year it means a little luck is necessary for a program like Michigan State to reach 11 wins for a third straight season.
You can almost see the scene now: Dusk settling in on Michigan Stadium with the Wolverines leading the Spartans 20-17. With 90 seconds on the clock and facing a 4th-and-2 at Michigan’s 25 yard line Dantonio sends in his field goal unit. Except, not wanting to allow Denard Robinson the chance for “easy” heroics, Dantonio calls “Sandlot,” and kicker Dan Conroy ends up completing a first-down pass to tight end Dion Sims. A few plays later the Spartans score the game-winning touchdowns as Denard has too little time to lead a Michigan comeback. Will that scenario happen? Probably not. But the point is clear: Dantonio will pick and choose his spots and a play like the imaginary above-mentioned “Sandlot” is one that could determine whether the Spartans are Legends Division Champions or playing in the Outback Bowl.
Another day, another Big Ten preview. Unlike Jamie’s last entry, which made a fan base yearn to gloss over the ensuring football season in hopes of hitting the hardwood, this one will focus on football – both for your benefit and Illinois faithful. Previously, I took a look at Wisconsin as well as the Big Ten’s adopted child – who doesn’t want to admit it is part of the family – Notre Dame.Other Big Ten previews live here. Today we’re looking at the Fighting Illini.
Is there a more middle-of-the-road program than Illinois? Seriously. It seems every year the debate in Big Ten country, especially Champaign, is will Illinois reach bowl eligibility. Then, step two is determining which lower-tier Big Ten tie-in bowl Illinois will play in with its mediocre 6-6 or 7-5 record. Every handful of years, when a group of seniors are tired of staying home for the holidays or making trips to the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, the team will shock the conference and somehow crash the Rose Bowl (see 2007). Before Illini faithful get all excited, 2012 will not be one of those latter years. It’ll be a year where Illinois likely scratches and claws all season just to become bowl eligible. Here are the props to stat and track for 2012:
Illinois wins: Over/Under 6.5
Using last year as a guide you can see the typical blueprint for Illinois’ “success” on the gridiron: Schedule three cupcakes and one easier-than-it-appears game in the nonconference and win at least two Big Ten games to go bowling. With the exception of a home game against then-No. 22 Arizona State, Illinois played nobodies in the nonconference. Arkansas State, South Dakota State and Western Michigan graced Illinois’ schedule in 2011. By defeating Arizona State Illinois only had to win two Big Ten games to reach the magical 6-win mark. Ron Zook’s club won its first two Big Ten games (Northwestern and at Indiana) to go 6-0, cranking up the Illinois-to-the-Rose-Bowl hypo-meter. Then, Illinois proceeded to lose its final six games – becoming the first Big Ten team in history to start 6-0 and finish 6-6. It was enough, however, to get Illinois into the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl where it put on an unwatchable performance in defeating UCLA, 20-14.
The schedule shapes up differently but overall results should be the same. A return trip to Arizona State in early September beefs up an otherwise boring nonconference (Western Michigan, Charleston Southern, and Louisiana Tech). Unlike last season, however, most of Illinois’ winnable Big Ten games are in November. After opening the season at home against Penn State, which is a toss-up game of all toss-ups, Illinois makes back-to-back trips to Wisconsin and Michigan. After recouping for what’ll sure be a few major butt-kickings during a bye week, Indiana comes to town. Outside of a game at the Horseshoe on Nov. 3, the rest of November sets up nicely for a stretch run of winnable games. Minnesota and Purdue are at home while the conference finale is at Northwestern.
The easiest way to analyze the schedule is to look at likely losses first. Chalk up Ls to Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio State – all road games. I’ll even throw in the season finale, at Northwestern, into that group. Northwestern isn’t a for-sure loss obviously, but Illinois has lost its last three trips to Evanston and with Northwestern possibly fighting for a bowl berth, I’ll give the ‘Cats an edge. What the season really boils down to – as it did last season – is the nonconference game against Arizona State. That game likely will determine the difference between a 6- or 7-win season. Illinois has enough talent to beat Indiana as well as Minnesota and Purdue fairly easily. Those three “wins” plus the three cupcakes in the nonconference get Illinois bowl eligible. The Penn State game could go either way, but for the sake of this argument, let’s say Bill O’Brien gets the Nittany Lions to play solid football and Illinois loses that one. It puts significant importance on the Sept. 8 game in Tempe.
Here’s a stat that’ll make Illinois fans squirm: Illinois has lost nine of its last 10 road or neutral openers, and the average loss has been by 15 points. No one really knows what to make of the Sun Devils this season so there is definitely hope. Put it this way: If Illinois sweeps the nonconference season it’ll definitely hit the over on 6.5 wins. There are at least three conference wins between Penn State, Indiana, Minnesota, Purdue and Northwestern. This seems like one of those seasons where Illinois, led by junior QB Nathan Scheelhaase wills his team to some unexpected wins and Illinois makes a real play for an 8-4.
The most underrated QB in the Big Ten had a pretty solid 2011 campaign. In completing 63.2 percent of his passes Scheelhaase threw for 2,110 yards and 13 touchdowns to go with eight interceptions. He ran for another 624 yards and six scores. The one negative is that he was credited with 191 rushes last season which is a red flag for a few reasons. First, that’s between 14-15 carries a game, most of which end with big hits. Second, it amounted to a measly 3.3 yards per rush. To improve on the 2,734 total yards he had last season, Scheelhaase’s bet would be to make his runs count; it’s not about the quantity of his runs, it’s the quality.
With Toledo’s Todd Beckman coming to town and installing a spread offense, Scheelhaase’s game should flourish. Quick passes and read options should allow him to use the pass to set up his own running game rather than the opposite. It would help if sophomore Donovan Young, who had 87 rushes for 451 yards (5.2 ypc) and six scores as a true freshman, makes the leap to the next level. Scheelhaase was Illinois’ offense under Zook and as much of Illinois’ tank can be credited to the schedule as it can to Scheelhaase breaking down. While it’s true Scheelhaase’s passing numbers were exceptional in Illinois’ final seven games – his touchdown-to-interception ratio was 13:1 while Illinois went 1-6, there were some late-game scores that only affected the betting line, not the game’s outcome.
Ideally, Scheelhaase should be able to throw for 2,500 yards and rush for another 500. While Beckman wants to keep his QB healthy he won’t ignore the fact that the ball in Scheelhaase’s hands is the best recipe for success. A new blind side protector in Simon Cvijanovic will be crucial to Scheelhaase having the season many envision. There is no reason to believe Cvijanovic can’t do a serviceable job. To keep Scheelhaase upright.
Combined Sacks and Tackles For Loss for Jonathan Brown and Michael Buchanan: Over/Under 13.5, 19.5
These are the numbers the duo recorded in 2011. With Whitney Mercilus gone (16 sacks, 6.5 tackles for loss) there are more punishing hits up for grabs. We’ll discuss the secondary a little later, but the pass rush and ability to stop the run will be huge in Illinois’ drive for something luxurious like the Gator Bowl or Insight Bowl rather than the Little Caesars Bowl or Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas.
Just for kicks, check out Sports Illustrated special Big Ten Preview issue. The most surprising thing was the issue’s writers’ picks for the 2012 All-Big Ten Defense Team. While Michigan State is expected to be not only the conference’s best defensive unit but one of the tops in the nation, Illinois’ defense is getting the quiet recognition. Buchanan, Brown, DT Akeen Spence and CB Terry Hawthorne all made SI’s second team. That’s four Illinois defenders ranked on the conference’s two-deep list. Michigan State also landed four players on the “squad.” For comparison, Ohio State (3), Wisconsin (2) and Nebraska (2) each have fewer big names than Beckham’s squad.
Naturally, it all starts with the front seven, and, in Illinois’ case, that means Buchanan, Brown & Co. While the Big Ten boasts a majority of mobile QBs in Michigan’s Denard Robinson, Ohio State’s Braxton Miller, Indiana’s Tre Robinson, Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez, Minnesota’s MarQueis Gray, and Northwestern’s Kain Colter (that doesn’t include Illinois’ Scheelhaase), it still has five true pocket passers. Teams like Penn State (Paul Jones), Purdue (Caleb TerBush) and Wisconsin (Danny O’Brien) will need to put in extra practice time to find a way to stop the inevitable orange rush. (That’s not to be confused with the Orange Krush, the Illini’s basketball student section). Expect Buchanan and Brown to go over both totals if Illinois finishes 7-5 or better. If BB & Co. fall short, Illinois likely will also fall short of the over/under wins total and possibly bowl eligibility.
Touchdowns in the Return Game: Over/Under 0.5
This seems like an easy pick. Take the over, man! Illinois just has to return one kickoff or punt for a touchdown! Well, that would be correct except Illinois’ return game was putrid under Ron Zook for six seasons. And despite having a return great in Eric Page (25.2 yards per kick return, 10.9 yards per punt return, two total return touchdowns) while at Toledo, Beckman’s overall special teams were still pretty poor. Against the conference’s stout defenses Illinois will need all the field position it can muster. Darius Millines had just five kick returns last season or a pedestrian 21 yard average. Somehow Millines or another player will have to step up or Illinois will be spending most of its season in the shadow of its goal posts.
The team’s “breakout” sleeper is senior Terry Hawthorne. He started as a wide receiver as a freshman but quickly made the transition to cornerback and his speed is now an asset on special teams. Hawthorne didn’t play a major role in the return game last year, having just five punt returns for a 7.4-yard average, but with Ryan Lankford graduating it seems like he’s ready to step up and excel in that role. One way or another, Mr. Versatility, as he’s called by coaches and teammates, will do his best to give Illinois some desirable field position. Maybe, just maybe, he’ll take one to the house.
Passing Yards Per Game Allowed: Over/Under 199.9
Shockingly, Illinois allowed just 162.3 passing yards per game last season – 3rd fewest in the nation behind Alabama (111) and South Carolina (132). As mentioned above, Hawthorne has a lot to do with that stat. While Eaton Spence, a top Florida recruit, likely takes over the opposite corner spot, safeties Steve Hull and Supo Sanni are back for the unit. There is enough meat up front for Illinois to manage opposing rush offenses. It’ll be the passing offenses that could really give Illinois some problems. But, if the unit mirrors last year’s play Tim Beckham might have the early lead in Big Ten Coach of the Year voting.
The 162.3 number isn’t quite an anomaly, but it’s close. Just three times in Zook’s six seasons did Illinois hold opponents to fewer than 200 passing yards per game. Zook’s first season – 2006 – where Illinois held teams to 182 yards through the air per game was the best before 2011. The 2008 Champaign (197 yards per game) was the only other year to fall under the double century mark. For instance, 2007 and 2009 teams allowed 245 and 249 yards per game, respectively. Even the 2010 team surrendered 221 yards per game.
What it says is that any Illinois turnaround (read: going from middle-bottom of the Big Ten to middle or upper-middle) starts with the secondary. It’ll be interesting to see what Beckman does with the unit. This is the coach, if you forgot, whose Toledo team gave up 63 points in back-to-back games last season and was known for trying to outscore people rather than stop them. (It should be mentioned Toledo lost the first high-scoring affair, 63-60, to Northern Illinois before outscoring Western Michigan the following week, 66-63).
No one should start making LSU comparisons in Champaign in regards to Illinois’ secondary. Nevertheless, with the experience of this five-man unit coupled with high-profile talent there is a lot of excitement on the defensive side of the ball.
(Previous entries in this series are my breakdowns on the NFC North from June and the AFC East from earlier this month)
There must be something in the water of the NFL’s pair of North Divisions. Both have three teams with strong (and realistic) playoff aspirations while another team’s goal is to avoid picking in the 2013 NFL Draft’s Top 5. My NFC North breakdown detailed how, despite being overwhelming division favorites, the Packers will have stiff competition from the Lions and Bears while the Vikings ogle with envy. Today, we’re looking at the AFC North where the Ravens, Steelers and Bengals all have legitimate chances to win the division title while the Browns are just hoping they can win a divisional contest.
It’s been an interesting offseason for the division as a whole, most notably in the draft. Pittsburgh actually addressed the offensive line, which has been the team’s seemingly only weakness for a few years, but still hasn’t come to terms with its No. 1 wide receiver Mike Wallace. Baltimore grabbed Alabama OLB Courtney Upshaw in the draft which might help offset Terrell Suggs’ season-ending* injury. (*Suggs says he’ll return this year but all scientific evidence suggests otherwise). Bernard Pierce, a bully of a RB from Temple, immediately becomes the team’s No. 2 back and a great guy to have behind Ray Rice. The Bengals, looking to find more gold with college rookie WRs (A.J. Green, part duex?) grabbed Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones, both who are expected to compete for starting spots. That coupled with the addition of The Law Firm, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, and the Bengals have the offensive pieces to fit their system. Even the lowly Browns made headlines. The Browns are putting much of their hope (present and future) in Alabama RB Trent Richardson. However, unless it gets consistent QB play from rookie Brandon Weeden – who almost certainly will take the starting job from Colt McCoy – Richardson will be facing 8- or even 9-man boxes daily.
With that snippet of information as a primer, here’s a look at the over/under win totals for the AFC North for 2012.
Has any quarterback gotten berated more than Joe Flacco despite leading his team to the playoffs in each of his four seasons? Not only have Flacco’s Ravens made the playoffs each year, they’ve won a playoff game each season as well. Apparently, five playoff wins in four seasons in the vaunted AFC get overshadowed by a pair of AFC Title Game defeats. Some would argue Baltimore’s defense has nearly taken it to the promise land only for Flacco to screw it up; those people might have a point, especially if they focus on a few playoff wins where Flacco was terrible (34 passing yards in a 33-14 win at New England in 2009; 140 passing yards in a 20-13 win vs. Houston in 2011). However, the Ravens defense isn’t what it was five years ago. Baltimore has a solid defensive unit, but it gives yards in chunks and needs opportunistic turnovers and timely stops (read: forcing teams to settle for field goals inside the red zone) to look as good as it does.
Ray Rice is still one of the top backs in the NFL and, given time, Flacco can make plays. It’s been an inconsistent offensive line coupled with his one-legged Grandma mobility that has hurt the former Delaware QB. Baltimore is following New England’s lead with the two-TE game plan design and both Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta – while not nearly the formidable combination of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez – are both solid in their own right and can be difference makers.
The first thing that jumps out at you is the absence of a Baltimore-Pittsburgh clash in the team’s first nine games. The teams will play their two games in a three-week stretch (Week 11 at Pittsburgh, Week 13 at Baltimore). Nevertheless, Ravens fans shouldn’t be giddy about a 9-0 start before facing the bitter AFC North rivals. The entire schedule is brutal, especially the early slate. September is bookended with divisional home games against the Bengals and Browns but a trip to Philadelphia and a home game against New England are sandwiched in between. October starts out nice with a probable victory at Kansas City but is followed by games against Dallas (Week 6) and at Houston (Week 7). Between the Pittsburgh battles is a west coast trip to San Diego (Week 12). While the games are at home in December, Peyton Manning’s Broncos (Week 15) and the defending champ Giants (Week 16) come to M&T Bank Stadium. Needless to say, this is not one of those schedules where you can confidently say “I can find 10 wins.”
Why they’ll go over 10 wins (-110)
The simple answer is because John Harbaugh’s club always does. Technically, they do 75 percent of the time, but that 9-7 campaign in 2009 still earned a spot in the playoffs. The other seasons, despite difficult schedules, the Ravens won 11, 12 and 12 games. Baltimore is 15-1 the past two seasons at home, the lone loss coming in 2010 to Pittsburgh. With that in mind it seems like seven home wins is a worst-case scenario. That means splitting eight road contests would be enough to get Baltimore to 11 wins and the over. There are three that jump out right away: at Kansas City (Week 5), at Cleveland (Week 9) and at Washington (Week 14). If the team sweeps the home slate those three wins would be enough to top the over. But, given the assumption of a home defeat, Baltimore will need to win a game at one of the following places: Philadelphia, Houston, Pittsburgh, San Diego or Cincinnati. (For reference, the Ravens won at Cincinnati and Pittsburgh last year but lost at San Diego). This kind of prop is all about playing the odds. Recent odds suggest 10 wins is the floor for the Ravens, making the over a solid bet.
Why they’ll fall under 10 wins (-105)
Joe Flacco’s regression last year was extremely worrisome. Terrell Suggs, the second heart-and-soul piece of the defense, will be a key loss. Anquan Boldin is really showing his age and, while people love his upside, Torrey Smith is entering his sophomore season in the NFL; can he really be Flacco’s No. 1 guy? The way the schedule is set up, Baltimore could enter its Week 11 game with Pittsburgh at 5-4. There are a lot of obstacles in Baltimore’s way this season. If Ray Rice somehow gets banged up, meaning he won’t be touching the rock 350 times again, it’ll mean more pressure on Flacco to make game-winning plays. That’s something he hasn’t been able to do consistently in his four years in the league. Would it be out of line to assume he’ll be able to make the change in Year 5? No, but it would be a big stretch. The Ravens could still be a playoff team at 9-7, but that’ll make “over” bettors irritated.
Isn’t it funny how a team that was a play or two away from the Super Bowl is all of a sudden a questionable bet to win double-digit games? There is nothing cut and dry with the Ravens. The schedule might be the toughest in the league but John Harbaugh has built a tough team that makes schedule difficulty irrelevant on Sundays. Because this division will come down to Baltimore and Pittsburgh once again it’s logical both teams will be sitting around 10 wins. I see a 10-6 Wild Card season in store for Baltimore, meaning a push. That being said, the Ravens are known for stealing an extra game so the only play here is the over.
Digest this: Pittsburgh’s offensive line has been arguably in the league’s bottom five the past two seasons, during which QB Ben Roethlisberger played with a broken foot; The Steelers went 12-4 each season. The fact is, with a defensive unit that plays more cohesive than any unit in the past decade, the Steelers aren’t going anywhere. Yes, a new offensive coordinator is in town, but the number of improvisational plays Roethlisberger has made in the pocket the last few years means there is no reason to fear the minute change-in-command.
Like all fellow division mates, Pittsburgh has a tough schedule, drawing the intriguing AFC West and NFC East. Four of Pittsburgh’s first six games are on the road and the Week 4 bye is ill-timed for a team that likes (and usually needs) its bye later in the year for a slew of banged-up veterans. Nevertheless, the Steelers aren’t fearful of travel as Pittsburgh has won 12 games the past two seasons on the road, including a crazy 7-1 mark in 2010. This year’s road trips are trickier, however. The opener at Denver culminates with Peyton Manning’s Mile High debut; Week 9 at the New York Giants and Week 15 at Dallas won’t be cakewalks either. Even the Week 3 trip cross country to Oakland will provide a set of challenges. There are some of those gimme road games – at Tennessee (Week 6) and at Cleveland (Week 12) – but not enough to hide the fact this is an extremely difficult slate.
Why they’ll go over 10 wins (+105)
During Mike Tomlin’s tenure as coach the Steelers have failed to win double-digit games once – and that was a 9-7 season. This team finds ways to win regardless of the opponent or venue. NFL castoff Issac Redman has proven to be a great (and better?) fill-in at RB than Rashard Mendenhall, whose lingering ACL issues might keep him below 100 percent for the entire year. The upgrades to the offensive line are just what Roethlisberger needed. He’s had great years with a terrible offensive line. Imagine what he’ll do with an average line in front of him. That plus the emergence of Mike Wallace as a top five WR in the NFL and Antonio Brown’s as arguably the league’s best No. 2 WR and the Steelers have an offense that can compete with anyone. Finding 10 wins on the schedule might be difficult, but that’s assuming the Steelers struggle in games they never do.
Why they’ll fall under 10 wins (-120)
A new coordinator could wreck havoc on Big Ben’s creativity in the pocket. It could also stunt the development of Pittsburgh’s young players if there are too many changes to the playbook. The Steelers could struggle out of the gates, dropping both September road games (at Denver, at Oakland) as well as a home game against a surprising Jets team to enter the bye at 0-3. At that point, the season isn’t over but it would make the challenge to finish 10-3 feel like Mount Kilimanjaro.
It’s quite interesting that Vegas believes the Steelers are closer to finishing 9-7 than 11-5 with the small juice on the under. Again, this goes back to playing the odds with a respect for history. With just one season in Tomlin’s reign that failed to reach 10-6 it makes an under play fairly risky. There is no doubt the AFC North division winner could be 10-6, mirroring the typical standings in the NFC East. But that hasn’t been the case in recent years. Despite the division’s difficulty, a pair of teams are always vying for the title at 10, 11 or 12 wins. Why should 2012 be any different? It shouldn’t be. That’s why the only play here is the over, especially when the fact remains Pittsburgh and New England still feel like the teams to beat in the AFC. Book It!
Quietly, the Bengals are becoming a consistently-good-with-a-few-dashes-of-great team. Maybe Cincinnati’s stayed off the police blotter enough that people are taking them seriously for once. Or, maybe the Bengals hit the blotter but the fact that seemingly every Detroit Lions player was cited for smoking weed this offseason overshadowed anything happening in Cincinnati. Regardless, the Bengals are no longer the Bungals. What’s most encouraging about Cincy is how the team is built to last with the infusion of talented and “team first” players. Andy Dalton looks like a long-time NFL starting quarterback with great poise and playmaking ability. A.J. Green made the college-to-NFL transition look way too easy. Jermaine Gresham is a rising tight end who is rapidly becoming a goal line ball hawk. Throw in a few gritty veterans who aren’t spotlight guys (BenJarvis Green-Ellis, Bernard Scott, Jordan Shipley) and the Bengals look like a team that’ll be pushing the Steelers and Ravens for years to come.
While Cincinnati lucks out by having to travel to Jacksonville and host Miami (as opposed to Baltimore playing New England and Houston while Pittsburgh plays the NY Jets and Tennessee) the Bengals do have four games against the Ravens and Steelers. The Bengals are one of those teams that will undoubtedly start hot but has a great chance to fade down the stretch due to a brutal second-half schedule. The pre-bye slate is bookended by the season opener at Baltimore and a Week 7 game vs. Pittsburgh. In between are what appear to be five wins: Cleveland, at Washington, at Jacksonville, Miami, at Cleveland. Beginning in Week 9, however, is where things get tough. November starts by hosting the Broncos (Week 9) followed by a home game against the Giants (Week 10). The probability is fairly high Cincinnati could finish December winless with road games against San Diego (Week 13), Philadelphia (Week 15) and Pittsburgh (Week 16) and home games against Dallas (Week 14) and Baltimore (Week 17).
Why they’ll go over 7.5 wins (-185)
If the first half of the schedule proves true, the Bengals should be, at worst, 5-2 before the bye. Heck, maybe the Bengals can steal a game at Baltimore or at home against Pittsburgh to hit 6-1. It means finding 2-3 more wins. A road game at Kansas City (Week 11) doesn’t look too daunting. The same can be said for the Week 12 home game vs. Oakland. If we assume the Bengals win both of those games, they’ll either already hit the over or just need to win one of five games in December (or beat the Broncos or Giants at home in November). It’s definitely doable but Cincinnati will likely be an underdog in all of those games. Heck, Cantor Gaming’s lines for every game have the Bengals as underdogs at Washington in Week 3 and at Kansas City in Week 11. Still, the Bengals, like their division mates, seem to win games they aren’t expected to win. This definitely could be an 8-8 squad.
Why they’ll fall under 7.5 wins (+160)
Going strictly off Cantor’s spreads the Bengals are favored just six times (Cleveland, at Jacksonville, Miami, at Cleveland, Oakland, Dallas) with two games being pick’ems (Denver and New York Giants). If we split the pick’em games, that’s just seven games Cincinnati will be chalk and there are some questionable calls on a few games as well. Despite playing well over the last few years, an optimist really can’t view anything better than a 3-3 divisional mark (sweep of Cleveland plus one win in four tries against Pittsburgh or Baltimore). Every team in the NFC East is going to be tough – even Washington (RGIII will be in his third game when these teams meet; remember how it took the NFL a month before it realized a way to slow down Cam Newton?) – and the AFC West is going to be better than people realize. In all honesty, the Bengals look, feel and smell like a 7-9 team that starts hot and tanks down the stretch.
If your five senses are working properly, you should be seeing, feeling and smelling the same thing I am: Cincinnati’s ceiling is 7-9, making the under a great play at an even better price. If you also want to taste and listen to the Bengals to hit the quintet of senses be my guest, but I’m sure your conclusion will be the same.
The Browns are one of those teams that have such an ingrained culture of losing that it almost doesn’t matter what talent is on the roster. Part of this can be blamed on being in a division with two seemingly perennial playoff teams in Pittsburgh and Baltimore. Throw in Cincinnati, which was in a similar spot at Cleveland a half dozen years ago and Cleveland’s biggest goal for the next few years should be to compete for third in the AFC North. While others bagged on Brandon Weeden for his age during the NFL Draft (have you heard he’s a 28-year-old rookie?) I think he’s a great fit for Cleveland. If Trent Richardson proves to be what’s he’s touted as – the best back to come out of college since Adrian Peterson – then the foundation is set. Evan Moore is the most underrated tight end in the game but Cleveland’s anemic offense makes his numbers (47 targets, 34 catches for 324 yards and 2 TDs in 2011) seem rather pedestrian. The biggest issue with this team is the receiving corps. I’ve never met a guy who said “Greg Little is a great No. 1 NFL wide receiver.” If I did I’m sure I would later learn his fantasy team consistently finishes 1-13 and picks No. 1 in the following year’s draft. Mohamed Massaquoi as a No. 2? Travis Benjamin as a potential starter? The wild card is Josh Cribbs. But, while he’s explosive when he touches the ball, he doesn’t get enough catches in this offense.
I know the city of Cleveland has circled the Week 7 game at Indianapolis. (It’s the battle of Andrew Luck vs. Brandon Weeden!) The problem with Cleveland’s schedule – which seems to be the problem every year – is that there just aren’t that many games where you can say, “That’s a win.” I see one game – one! - that I would say Cleveland definitely wins (vs. Kansas City in Week 14). The problem is, even Cantor Gaming is pessimistic as the Chiefs are 1.5-point favorites. There is the home game against Buffalo in Week 3 (Bills are a 1-point favorite), the above-mentioned game at Indianapolis (Colts are 3-point favorites) as well as a home game against Washington in Week 15 (The RGIII vs. Brandon Weeden Game!) where, surprise, the Redskins are 1-point favorites). I’ve only mentioned the “winnable” games. Six games against Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati as well as games against the NFC East seem to equal a best-case 2-8 record but a more-than-likely 1-9 or 0-10 mark.
Why they’ll go over 5.5 wins (+120)
With brutal schedules for all division teams, the Steelers and Ravens get beat up against other big boys and the Browns can hold serve against the Ravens (Week 9) and the Steelers (Week 12). Finding four other wins with so many almost-equally-as-bad teams on the schedule shouldn’t be too difficult. There is also the chance Denver and/or Pittsburgh have locked up playoff spots and seeds in the final two weeks meaning Cleveland will have a real chance against the backups for both teams.
I think Vegas might have forced more indecision had it set the over/under prop at 4.5 wins with the same juice. I suppose there’s an argument to be made between 4-12 and 5-11, though it would take a lot of convincing to get me to put a wager on 5-11 or better. The fact remains this team has a lot of holes and this is all assuming Brandon Weeden is the starting QB from Day 1. If Colt McCoy makes this a fight for signal-caller dutie this team could be worse than expected. Take the under here, the biggest lock of the NFL season. Book It!